Monday 21 October 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'It became frenzied, unstructured football that you could tell Mick McCarthy hated but understood'

David McGoldrick, left, celebrates with team-mate James McClean after his shot was deflected in by Joseph Chipolina
David McGoldrick, left, celebrates with team-mate James McClean after his shot was deflected in by Joseph Chipolina
Robbie Brady celebrates scoring Ireland’s second goal on a night that provided little to shout about. Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Mick McCarthy's voice stayed urgent, seats emptying behind him, a rattling chain still hauling his players into order.

He would not, could not relent until Robbie Brady's 90th-minute header finally gave the evening clarity. Only then, the threat of embarrassment had consumed Irish thoughts.

In Copenhagen on Friday, the blessing seemed that our football was, at least, slightly less medieval than we'd come to endure as Martin O'Neill's interest began to wane.

He'd put a lot of familiar furniture in the team, but a slightly different feng shui. They looked a team that wanted to challenge their own limitations as distinct from one compelled to run from them. One inclined to lift their heads.

But these aren't footballers equipped to explore a game in anything but resolutely practical terms.

Secrets

Even Gibraltar knew there'd be no secrets here. Ireland had two corners inside the opening minute, Shane Duffy invited forward like a fairground giant released to draw shrieks from a school party. Nothing came of either, naturally. It felt a charade of sorts. A gentle game being played.

To be Gibraltar on these nights is to be stalked by inevitability. Save a few gently anodyne incursions into the Irish half, they were here - essentially - to man roadblocks. To cordon and police.

Robbie Brady pounces at the back post to head Ireland's second goal in injury time during their 2-0 victory against Gibraltar last night. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Robbie Brady pounces at the back post to head Ireland's second goal in injury time during their 2-0 victory against Gibraltar last night. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

And the trouble for Ireland is that these teams don't play in neat, congenial patterns. They hunt you and kick you. They play a game as unromantic as a punch in the nose.

Yet, the night tingled with that ultimate conceit of a crowd presuming upon goals from a team with two of three front-men who had yet to find the net at this level.

Our movement looked a bit obvious then, a bit slow at times. Earnest but poorly synchronised.

These kind of games seldom deliver anything portentous. They are declarations of hierarchy. A crowd ordinarily keyed to nervousness, communicates an air of fecklessness almost. A conviction that the goals, however clumsily, will come.

And so it duly proved, David McGoldrick's 29th-minute shot ricocheting off a defender's back to wrong-foot Gibraltar goalkeeper, Kyle Goldwin. McGoldrick wheeled away as if he'd just written the perfect sonnet. The truth was he'd just got lucky, UEFA rightly declaring it an own goal.

Who cared?

As the players high-fived, McCarthy glugged from a water-bottle, visibly relieved that they - finally - had a lead on the tiny peninsula. The score just sounded like the thud of a blow from which there was no return.

Because much as Ireland were labouring, Gibraltar just didn't look a team with a goal in it.

Since their international bow in 2013, they've been reduced to anecdotal marginality except for that famous, single week when Roy Chipolina's goals gave them victories over Armenia (away) and Liechtenstein. Chipolina, a prison officer, was captain here.

But the game seemed to run at a pace he couldn't quite find.

Callum Robinson was probably the pick of Ireland's front men, almost doubling their lead on the stroke of half-time with a left-footed curler.

And, of course, as long as it stayed at one, you could always detect a gentle whisper of fear. That faint scratching in the attic.

McCarthy, bespectacled and stern, kept breaking into a mad semaphore, flapping those long arms like a marsh bird about to take flight.

He'd been asked about this in the build-up, about the hope that Ireland might close this game out early, gifting their manager one of those rare international nights when all the familiar anxieties dissolved. He seemed vexed by the question. As if to answer it might communicate disrespect to their visitors.

But you could tell he yearned for precisely that now, for that second goal to silence the murmured threat of a result unspooling by the Dodder that would drench this night with embarrassment.

When Darren Randolph had to go down smartly on a deflected Liam Walker shot in the 56th minute, the unease in the stadium rose to an urgent hum. There was no flow or rhyme to the evening now. Just bursts of high energy and unravelling control. The eccentric Goldwin continuously put his kick-outs out of play; Ireland kept playing passes to invisible men.

Just after the hour mark, a limp rendition of 'The Fields' rippled down off the south terrace. Mick sent on Seáni Maguire for Scott Hogan, Robbie Brady for Robinson; replacing two men lost in heavy traffic with two others.

The dignity of the struggle was all Gibraltar's. With a line of six across the back, they were militaristic in discipline, applying themselves to the most humdrum, banal duties with the zeal of missionaries.

Ireland couldn't really get inside their skin, final passes routinely over-hit, crosses arcing away to nobody.

It became frenzied, unstructured football that you could tell McCarthy hated but understood.

His team was trying to get behind a human wall, to find space where there was none.

Only Brady's late, late goal brought calm and clarity to a fevered evening.

Irish Independent

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